Logging, Palm Oil and Human Rights in Borneo: Malaysian Government Pushes Ahead By Ousting Indigenous Leaders

Penan leaders photo
Image: Assembly of Upper Baram River headmen in 2006 (top left corner: the late Kelesa Naan, former headman of Long Kerong; top right corner: Bilong Oyoi, the deposed headman of Long Sait). Photo: The Bruno Manser Fund

In a move to seize control of land belonging to indigenous peoples who oppose logging in the Borneo rainforests, the government of Malaysia is replacing locally-elected community leaders with timber company associates.

According to The Bruno Manser Fund, a Swiss NGO that works with the indigenous forest people of the Sarawak in Borneo, the leaders of at least three Penan villages who opposed logging in the region have lost the government's official endorsement over the past year, along with one headman's mysterious death and the disappearance of one Swiss activist back in 2001. The Penan are one of the world's last nomadic peoples still inhabiting the primeval forests. Now, the government plans to install puppet representatives who will support the cutting of the rainforest, with the intention of setting up lucrative oil palm plantations. The affected villages now face a pending land rights dispute over the ground upon which they sit."Clear violation" of right to self-determination
"The non-recognition of the elected community headmen by the Sarawak State Government is a clear violation of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples," says The Bruno Manser Fund's e-mail release. "The Declaration, which has been adopted by Malaysia, upholds in its Article 18 the right of indigenous communities 'to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures'."

Links between rights abuses and environment
Though the connection may not be immediate to some, it is becoming more and more evident that there is an emergent link between the globalization of natural resources, human and animal rights abuses and environmental degradation. The mad rush for biofuels globally is inevitably driving up food prices, overtaking arable land and forests — and even prompting some observers to describe biofuels as a "crime against humanity."

Though it is imperative to find viable alternative sources of fuel energy, the result is a parallel phenomenon where land itself, and what is grown or extracted from it, have become strategic points of contention, while human rights and long-term ecological well-being are seen as obstacles.

Malaysia logging both Borneo and the Amazon
Nor does it end with national borders: back in July, the Malaysian Land Development Authority FELDA announced plans to establish 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of oil palm plantations in the Amazon rainforest, in partnership with local company Braspalma.

During the 1980s, the Penan struggle against logging of their lands led to road blockades and sabotages, culminating in a brutal repression by the Malaysian government. Presently, in addition to the threat of displacement, logging and supplanting virgin rainforests with oil palm, the Malaysian government also plans to dam several rainforest rivers for electricity, in the hopes of attracting aluminum smelters and mineral refiners to the region. But, villagers have fought back with some innovative measures (see below).

Map of Penan region, Borneo, Malaysia image

Map showing the location of the villages of the deposed tribal leaders and the area of the pending land rights litigations. Image: Bruno Manser Fund

So what has been done and what can be done further?
Though corrupt governments around the world can try to exploit vulnerable groups and the land that they live on, communities are organizing in greater solidarity and activism is stepping up with improved technologies and initiatives. Some developments and suggestions in the case of the Penan:

1. Watch out for fraudulent labelling of "sustainable" timber from Samling, one of the biggest Malaysian timber companies, as designated by the the Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC).

The Bruno Manser website states: "the intention is to use this label to sell the timber logged in the Penan's last surviving primeval-forest areas. For many years, Samling has been plundering the forests, not only in Malaysia but also in Papua-New Guinea, Cambodia and South America. The fact that Samling, of all companies, should be given a certificate for "sustainable" forestry shows to what incredible lengths Malaysia is willing to go to establish a totally undeserved positive image for itself on the international timber market."

"We completely and utterly reject this certificate," says Penan headman Bilong Oyoi from Long Sait. "Many of us are suffering on account of Samling's activities: our rivers have been contaminated, our sacred sites have been desecrated and our animals are being driven away by people who are destroying our culture and our livelihood."

2. Learn about the Pulong Tau National Park
In March 2006, the long-awaited Pulong Tau National Park (meaning "Our Forest") finally opened in Eastern Sarawak near the border with Indonesia, with 58,000 hectares of protected forest. There have been recommendations to form a local tourism board, formulate wildlife protection measures and so on.

3. GPS mapping of Penan territories is helping the communities fight back and secure their land rights — borders, cultural sites, settlements and hunting grounds are clearly documented so that they can be corroborated with satellite images showing where logging companies have cleared parts of the original forest.

::Mongobay via The Bruno Manser Fund (website)

Related Links On Palm Oil & Borneo
Southeast Asia Paying High Environmental Cost For Palm Oil
UN says Palm Oil Industry is Wiping out the Orang Utan
UN Report on Sustainable Bioenergy Released
Major Campaign against Palm Oil, Destroyer of Orangutans
Biofuels: Possible "Crime Against Humanity"?
GPS Empowering Villagers In Fight To Conserve Rainforest
Related Links on Bruno Manser, Swiss activist
Swiss Activist Missing in Borneo
Bruno and the Blowpipes: Who will determine the future of Sarawak's Penan?

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